A group of academics, students, civil society organisations and residents of the city of Leuven is protesting a debate that will take place featuring Filip Dewinter of the Flemish far-right Vlaams Belang party. The topic is whether migration is an opportunity or represents a "great replacement" – a well-known far-right conspiracy theory.
Given Dewinter's political history, the event – scheduled to take place in a KU Leuven auditorium on Monday 13 March – is set to feature a number of divisive far-right tropes. Dewinter is due to debate with Maurits Vande Reyde of the Flemish liberal Open VLD party. But in an open letter, protesters argue that Dewinter's promotion of the great replacement conspiracy theory is "dangerous and racist."
They argue that it should not be treated as "just an innocent idea that can be debated" and express their "concern about the normalisation of right-right extremist thinking." Although they assume that many (including Open VLD's Vande Reyde) will disagree with Dewinter, they underline the danger of "apparently banal debates such as this" and call for KU Leuven to act responsibly.
Normalising far-right rhetoric
Replacement theory is based on the idea that there is a deliberate attempt to replace the native (usually white) population with non-natives – typically of a different ethnicity. The term has been in use since the early 20th century, including by far-right polemicists such as Madison Grant who asserted that the "genetically superior northern races" would perish due to immigration.
Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler reportedly called Grant’s book his "bible". Dewinter's idea is slightly different in that he sees the replacement as a threat from "Cultural Marxists", the economic elites and Islam. He argues that these groups are in league to replace the European population with a Muslim population through mass migration.
The open letter argues that Dewinter incites hatred and racism since his theory presupposes that diversity is a fundamental threat. The protestors cite the Norwegian far-right domestic terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 youths in 2011. Breivik not only referred to the conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism but also explicitly mentioned Filip Dewinter as an inspiration.
"Normalising far-right ideas poses a great danger to our society. If we allow far-right ideas and rhetoric to be normalised it is bound to open the door to increasing extremism," the signatories write. "In the process, some will feel justified in using violence against minorities or dissenters. We must try to avoid this at all costs."
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The signatories therefore call on the university to use the occasion to revive the memory of the victims of fascism. To prevent radical and dangerous ideas like the replacement theory from taking hold, they argue that "it is up to the university to speak out against hatred and racism."
They acknowledged efforts by KU Leuven on this front, such as the charter for inclusion which states that there is no place for racism and discrimination at the university. Yet they insist that this must also apply in practice: "We therefore call for an auditorium in Leuven to be named after Anne Frank, who fell victim to such fascist thinking during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands."
"This would be a fitting tribute to the many victims who were murdered by the far-right because of their ethnicity or political affiliation."